April 22, 2013 — The following is a excerpt from the Blue Ocean Institute's article, "Global Warming- One More Reason to Keep New England’s Protected Areas in Place," originally published on April 11.
Fisheries scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently helped develop a strategy for helping wildlife adapt to global warming. The strategy: conserve habitat to support healthy fish and protect ecosystem functions. Specifically, NOAA scientists suggest reducing destructive catch methods, like bottom trawling, and protecting important fish habitats from destructive bottom gears. Hopefully, if we protect fish as best we can and minimize other human impacts, fish will find a way to adapt to climate change. This sounds like a good idea, right?
But disconcertingly, those same NOAA scientists who say we should protect fish habitat to help fish deal with climate change, are currently considering a proposal to un-do protection for 5,000 square miles of ocean habitat in New England’s waters. They are considering opening up more than half of New England’s current protected habitat areas to bottom trawl fishing – areas that have been closed to fishing for nearly two decades and that provide critical protection to numerous juvenile and adult fishes, as well as other wildlife. The reasoning: give fishermen more opportunities to catch fish to provide them economic relief during this difficult time [The US Department of Commerce recently declared a commercial fisheries disaster in New England].
Unfortunately, this idea lacks common sense. Opening up the closed habitat areas would un-do the protections scientists put in place to rebuild New England fishes in the first place. And it goes against the scientists own advice for combating global warming – a very real problem for New England fishes!
Analysis: Global warming, and how fish stocks adapt to it, will play an increasingly important role in the future of fisheries management. While attempting to address the role of habitat protection in this process, the Blue Ocean Institute conflates two different management measures recommended by the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) and under consideration by NOAA. In the process, they create the impression that NOAA plans to remove habitat protection from key areas of ocean, when in fact the opposite is true.
There are currently two efforts to revise the network of closed areas in Georges Bank, but only one of them would affect areas designated as essential fish habitats. The one alluded to in the Blue Ocean Institute’s article, Framework 48, would not. Instead, the Framework opens up, on a limited basis, areas that were closed to commercial fishing almost twenty years ago. These areas are not, as the article states, “protected habitat areas.” They are mortality closures, part of the old system of fisheries management that controlled fishing mortality by manipulating fishing effort: determining how many fish could be caught by determining when, where, and how fishermen could fish. None of the areas under consideration were closed because of the value or unique properties of their habitats.
Implementing Framework 48 carries with it several benefits. For one, it simplifies fisheries management. Fishermen have been operating under an allocation-based system since 2010. Because fishing mortality is now controlled directly by allocations, as opposed to indirectly by measures like closed areas, the mortality closures are ultimately no longer necessary. Partially opening them does not undo any habitat protections, but brings the areas in line with the current fisheries management strategy.
Additionally, by allowing a limited number of fishermen into these areas, the Framework can relieve some of the economic pain that has been inflicted on the fishery with the latest round of allocation reductions. It will allow fishermen who are already sacrificing for the sake of rebuilding fish stocks a chance to still make a living.
Most importantly, any benefits that come from opening these areas will not come at the expense of essential fish habitat. Essential habitats that overlap with the other closed areas are not being considered in the Framework, and are instead being addressed by a separate process, the Omnibus Habitat Amendment. Part of the Amendment includes adjusting currently existing habitat areas to better reflect the locations of essential habitats. This does not mean that habitat protections will disappear, but that fisheries regulators are reorienting the closed areas to better reflect the most recent science and current practices in fisheries management.
The process to update habitat and mortality closures in Georges Bank involves the most up-to-date science and management techniques. Maintaining the status quo, as the Blue Ocean Institute suggests, is ultimately not in the best interests of the habitat or fish stocks, and represents a missed opportunity for improving fisheries management.